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How to Read Paul’s Letters Chronologically

Old Woman Reading a Lectionary (So-called Portrait of Rembrandt's Mother), circa 1630. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Back when I was asking Google how the Bible was written, I stumbled across a variety of supposedly “chronological” reading plans for the Bible. Nearly all of them were pious lists that emphasized reading in an order that reinforces a particular theology. They purposefully carry you through the texts in a way that suggests a certain view of Jesus, a view that would change if you simply read the texts in a different order.

Since the word “chronological” in that sense has absolutely nothing to do with when the original texts were written, I thought I’d offer an alternative: a 30-day plan for how to read Paul’s letters chronologically. But first: an explanation.

The late Marcus Borg urged us to read the New Testament in the order in which the books were actually written rather than the order in which they appear in modern Bibles. We should start with the letters of Paul because they are our earliest texts from the Christ movement. Don't read Acts, don't read the gospels. Save those for later. Paul's letters came first.

Although many letters in the New Testament are claimed to have been written by Paul, most scholars who have studied them have reached the conclusion that only seven of the letters were actually written by Paul when he lived in the early 1st century, around 20 to 30 years after the death of Jesus. Where did the other letters come from? They were written by other people in Paul’s name in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries. "Beginning with seven of Paul's letters," Borg writes,

illustrates that there were vibrant Christian communities spread throughout the Roman Empire before there were written Gospels. His letters provide a "window" into the life of very early Christian communities.

The seven authentic or “undisputed” letters of Paul, in roughly chronological order, are as follows:

  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Philemon
  • Philippians
  • Romans

By far the easiest way I’ve found to read these letters in chronological order is to read The Authentic Letters of Paul (Dewey et al), which not only puts the letters in chronological order but also grapples with places where others may have edited and rearranged the letters, and/or added new material.

Full disclosure: I was involved, albeit only slightly, in the editing process of this book, but I truly have yet to encounter another book that refuses to pull punches on this issue. Why should it be difficult to find Paul’s letters arranged in some sort of chronological order? It shouldn’t be. This sort of resource is the work of good historians, and that’s what I appreciate about it. They took a risk and put an answer out there. I'd have loved to take a New Testament class that gave me a couple attempts like this and asked me to compare the portraits of Paul that emerged.

Related Resource: Listen to a free 2-part interview with the authors and translators of The Authentic Letters of Paul with Ron Way on AuthorTalk Radio.

Have you been meaning to read (or re-read) Paul's letters? We'll be hosting a 30-day challenge here on the Westar blog. How to participate.

Read Paul's Letters Chronologically

This reading plan should get you through the seven authentic letters of Paul in 30 days based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. That's a pretty intense reading schedule, given that Paul's arguments can be a real pain to follow. You may find that you want to slow the pace down to 60 days instead (which you can accomplish by reading 1 to 2 chapters a day instead of 2 to 3).

If you try it, let me know how it worked for you! What sort of Paul did you discover? Did you reach the same conclusions as Bernard Brandon Scott? Do you know of other attempts to arrange Paul's letters chronologically?

Day 1: 1 Thessalonians 1–3

Day 2: 1 Thessalonians 4–5

Day 3: Galatians 1–2

Day 4: Galatians 3–4

Day 5: Galatians 5–6

Day 6: 1 Corinthians 1–2

Day 7: 1 Corinthians 3–4
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 8: 1 Corinthians 5–6

Day 9: 1 Corinthians 7–8

Day 10: 1 Corinthians 9–10

Day 11: 1 Corinthians 11–12
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 12: 1 Corinthians 13–14
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 13: 1 Corinthians 15–16

Day 14: 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:18 Defense of Paul’s Credibility (part 1)

Day 15: 2 Corinthians 4–6:13; 7:2–4 Defense of Paul’s Credibility (part 2)

Day 16: 2 Corinthians 10–13 Parody of “A Fool’s Speech”

Day 17: 2 Corinthians 1:1–2:13; 7:5–16 Letter of Reconciliation

Day 18: 2 Corinthians 8 Collection Appeal to Corinth

Day 19: 2 Corinthians 9 Collection Appeal to Achaia

Day 20: Philemon

Day 21: Philippians 4:10–20 A Thank-you Letter

Day 22: Philippians 1:1–3:1a; 4:4–9 Letter from Prison (part 1)

Day 23: Philippians 21–23 Letter from Prison (part 2)

Day 24: Philippians 3:1b–4:3 Paul’s Testimony and Advice

Day 25: Romans 1–3

Day 26: Romans 4–6
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 27: Romans 7–9

Day 28: Romans 10–12

Day 29: Romans 13–15
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

Day 30: Romans 16 Letter of Recommendation
There are likely some insertions from other writers mixed in

6/3/2015 12:00 pm update: A couple gracious readers have reminded me that, of course, Marcus Borg himself published a chronological reading of the New Testament in 2012, a couple years after The Authentic Letters. He uses the NRSV translation, and he places Philemon and Philippians before 2 Corinthians.

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Seeking a Historically Sensitive Story of Christianity

How do we tell a historically sensitive story of Christian origins? Is it possible to capture the story in a way that honors the many directions Christianity might have taken, and not just the dominant story we see today?And how will you share it with others? Perhaps you tell it like a book, necessarily linear, traveling through the ideas and practices that survived and sparked from one generation to the next. Or maybe a web is a better metaphor, with its multiple strands departing from key, nodal moments—none of which necessarily equals "progress."

Or perhaps there is another, better metaphor. Whatever the approach, Westar's Christianity Seminar is arguing that it's high time we found a model that works. And frankly, any model that begins with the gospels and marches through Paul to the Apostolic Fathers is just not good enough.

Audio: Interim executive director Lane McGaughy expresses the importance of developing a clear model and methodology to describe the emergence of Christianity (his quote comes from Dominic Crossan's book The Birth of Christianity, 1999). 

The Spring 2014 national meeting laid the groundwork for such a new story. Sessions began with archaeology, touched on the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, and ended with questions about the advantages and challenges of adopting L. Michael White's four-generational model of Christian origins.

Many people are familiar with the famous red and black beads used by the Jesus Seminar to vote. The Christianity Seminar will also employ voting, but not yet. At this early stage, the statements generated by the Christianity Seminar are not voting items but contours for future work. In other words, what you can find here are lessons learned in the conversations that occurred during these seminar sessions.

Even so, the statements below are likely to challenge uncritical assumptions held by many people about early Christian history.

A full report on the sessions will appear in an upcoming issue of The Fourth R. The original seminar papers that the Fellows discussed can be ordered in either electronic or paper copies for those interested in reading them. This preliminary report presents material from the Seminar in two parts: conversations and statements. The conversations are audio clips from the sessions—occasions where scholars thought aloud together and pressed one another to consider possible assumptions and new ways forward for understanding Christian origins.

The comments of individual scholars are not cemented into peer-reviewed articles, but rather are open attempts to engage with complex questions. We hope you'll share your own thoughts and reflections in the same spirit, and give new ideas the benefit of the doubt. The statements are the scholars' responses to the question, "What have we learned?" These were formulated in the final session of the seminar.

Spring meeting attendees chat in between sessions.

Spring meeting attendees chat in between sessions.

Archaeology and Christian Origins

Conversations

Clip #1: Daniel Schowalter and Arthur Dewey discuss what archaeology reveals about how social memory works. How do we "make" a memory in a material ways? How do human beings handle the memories left behind by others? 

Clip #2: Joanna Dewey asks Milton Moreland about the malleability of the Apostle Peter in stories that claim he went to Rome. There are many such stories, while it is not clear that Peter actually went to Rome in historical fact. Philip Harland joins the conversation with a question about how competing groups employed their own versions Peter against one another. 

Clip #3: After Emily Schmidt looks at the Gospel of Mark through the lens of Herod's temple-building activities, Art Dewey asks whether Herod's activities—specifically, his pantomime of unifying the northern and southern kingdoms—ignited messianic dreams among the people, even if Herod himself wasn't who they believed would bring such dreams to fruition. 

Clip #4: In response to a question from Robert Miller, Philip Harland describes how slaves and free persons participated in Greco-Roman associations. He goes on to explore what role Paul's collection might have played in his attempts to claim he and his communities belong to the Jerusalem-based associations who followed Jesus. 

Clip #5: Jodi Magness, Emily Schmidt, and L. Michael White together caution against claiming one group (in this case, the Jews) directly responded to another (e.g., the Christians) by building their buildings or living their lives in a certain way. Rather, this is what it means to belong to and contribute to a particular culture. Utilizing the language and art of the people around you is a natural way to express yourself, without having to see it as a direct challenge or debate about differences. 

Statements

There is a material component to identity.

The material manifestation is important to a political identity with respect to Herod and later Titus.

Material manifestation is also important to religious identity, such as the Samson motif at Huqoq, monetary donations, sacrifices, the tomb, and synagogues themselves.

There was the reuse of existing structures made to serve different purposes.

Sacred space is recognized in Greco-Roman polytheism regardless of any single group’s affiliation.

A variety of deities were being honored in the same general site.

An event was the impetus for the symbolic moving of Peter to Rome.

Social memory is a mechanism for the formation of group identity.

Herod creates a Roman identity with the building of his three Augustea.

With Herod’s enlargement of the Jewish temple complex, he not only establishes a Roman identity but also reaffirms a strong Jewish identity(?)

Herod created the Jewish contribution to the imperial image(?)

Flavian propaganda set up Jews as the anti-Roman.

Groups form their identities in and through giving.

Statements formulated in response to Huqoq findings:

In the 5th century Jewish/Christian relations were more flexible and diverse than the rabbis or imperial decrees might indicate.

In the Galilee and other parts of Palestine in the 4th–6th centuries, Jews and Christians lived in separate villages. In urban areas, the populations were mixed.

We know almost nothing about what went on in the synagogue in terms of the liturgy.

Material evidence such as furniture and placement of Torah shrines may indicate diversity in liturgy.

The 5th-century synagogue images are engaging with the Christian message.

Many Jews were still expecting the rebuilding of the temple.

The Jews at Huqoq were expecting a warrior Messiah, demonstrating that this anticipation did not die out (See the Samson mosaic).

Synagogues pre-date the 4th century, but we do not have monumental synagogue art and architecture in the land of Israel until the 4th to 6th century.

Monumental synagogues developed alongside or at the same time as Christian monumental buildings.

Synagogues before the 4th century were rather modest assembly buildings, not monumental buildings.

Diaspora synagogues are not purpose-built buildings.

The Maccabees mosaic raises a question about what is canon in this period.

Daniel Schowalter responds to Jodi Magness' report on her recent discoveries at Huqoq as moderator Joanna Dewey and fellow panelist L. Michael White look on

Daniel Schowalter responds to Jodi Magness as Joanna Dewey and L. Michael White look on.

A Preliminary Look at Nag Hammadi

Conversations

The Christianity Seminar will be looking in depth at Nag Hammadi in upcoming sessions (check the Westar website in coming months for information on how you can join that conversation). In this session, Hal Taussig and Maia Kotrosits introduced the Nag Hammadi texts and expressed the need for scholars to give these texts more sustained, serious attention for a full story of Christian origins.

Clip #1: Bernard Brandon Scott and Hal Taussig wrestle with the term "Christian" and the pitfalls of naming participants in these early movements by a word they probably did not use to describe themselves. 

Clip #2: Jarmo Tarkki and Maia Kotrosits exchange some thoughts on the problem of anachronistic assumptions about the past. Jarmo shares a modern, humorous example to show the problem of relying too much on the meaning even of a single term to make one's case, while Maia asks what would happen if we shift our approach from categorical definitions to textured ones, recognizing that even in the same era a single word can mean many things. 

Statements

Time is ripe to move beyond literary-critical analysis of Nag Hammadi and to view them with social-historical lenses.

Time is ripe to integrate the study of Nag Hammadi texts into the study of early Christianity.

A diaspora/colonial model is useful for Nag Hammadi and other early Christian texts.

Expressions of hope for unity/unification, honor, value in context of humiliation/social dislocation/violence—what do these suggest for the experience of the authors/communities of these texts?

“Gnosticism” as an analytical category needs full Westar treatment in near future.

John C. Kelly

Westar Fellow Jack Kelly waits for the next session of the Christianity Seminar to get underway.

Models for Reconstructing Early "Christianity"

Conversations

In this session three panelists—Art Dewey, Joanna Dewey, Bernard Brandon Scott—responded to L. Michael White's book From Jesus to Christianity (2005).

Clip #1: In response to Art Dewey, Mike White explains what he means by "generations" and thinks aloud about how certain events—"nodal" moments—in a people's history can mark generations without trying to pin down the exact years too rigidly. Prior to this, Art had also suggested thinking less linearly by describing the development in terms of a network or web, instead of a forward progression. 

Clip #2: John (Jack) Kelly discusses some of the problems of finding and employing models to understand a subject. In particular, he critiques the notion of telling the story of the development of Christianity through a "process to product" model. 

Statements

We need to develop and use models for our reconstructions.

We need to break away from a canonically based model.

Canonically based models have a misguided dependence on elite texts and do not account for the majority of extant texts.

Using a chronologically based model is more helpful than a canon model.

The "generational" model is useful for our reconstructions in the Christianity Seminar.

The generational model should combine fixed intervals (e.g., 40 years) and event-focused dates.

The generational model is strongest for the first generation (30-70 CE), possibly the second (70-110 CE), but the later periodization is more complicated and arbitrary.

If we use a generational model, we need to account for these items:

  • Missing data
  • Mixture of generations
  • Changes and developments happened at different times in different places
  • Major 'nodal' events
  • Non-elite traditions, rituals
  • Women and other under-represented groups
  • Other possible metaphors: web, network, corporate development

Want to know more about Westar projects? Try "When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century" or browse the Projects page.